Reverse Engineering A Module From A Vacuum Tube Computer

It’s best to admit upfront that vacuum tubes can be baffling to some of the younger generation of engineers. Yes, we get how electron flow from cathode to anode can be controlled with a grid, and how that can be used to amplify and control current. But there are still some things that just don’t always to click when looking at a schematic for a tube circuit. Maybe we just grew up at the wrong time.

Someone who’s clearly not old enough to have ridden the first wave of electronics but still seems to have mastered the concepts of thermionic emission is [Usagi Electric], who has been doing some great work on reverse engineering modules from old vacuum tube computers. The video below focuses on a two-tube pluggable module from an IBM 650, a machine that dates clear back to 1954. The eBay find was nothing more than two tube sockets and a pair of resistors joined to a plug by a hoop of metal. With almost nothing to go on, [Usagi] was still able to figure out what tubes would have gone in the sockets — the nine-pin socket was a big clue — and determine that the module was likely a dual NAND gate. To test his theory, [Usagi] took some liberties with the original voltages used by IBM and built a breakout PCB. It’s an interesting mix of technologies, but he was able to walk through the truth table and confirm that his module is a dual NAND gate.

The video is a bit long but it’s chock full of tidbits that really help clear up how tubes work. Along with some help from this article about how triodes work, this will put you on the path to thermionic enlightenment.

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Bringing An IPod To The Modern NAND Era

Flash storage was a pretty big deal back in the mid ’00s, although the storage sizes that were available at the time seem laughable by today’s standards. For example, having an iPod that didn’t have a spinning, unreliable hard drive was huge even if the size was measured in single-digit gigabytes, since iPods tended to not be treated with the same amount of care as something like a laptop. Sadly, these small iPods aren’t available anymore, and if you want one with more than 8GB of storage you’ll have to upgrade an old one yourself.

This build comes to us from [Hugo] who made the painstaking effort of removing the old NAND flash storage chip from an iPod Nano by hand, soldering 0.15mm enameled magnet wire to an 0.5mm pitch footprint to attach a breakout board. Once the delicate work was done, he set about trying to figure out the software. In theory the iPod should have a maximum addressable space of 64 GB but trying to get custom firmware on this specific iPod is more of a challenge and the drives don’t simply plug-and-play. He is currently using the rig for testing a new 8GB and new 16GB chip though but it shows promise and hopefully he’ll be able to expand to that maximum drive size soon.

The build is really worth a look if you’re into breathing new life into old media players. Sometimes, though all these old iPods really need to get working again is just to be thrown into a refrigerator, as some genius engineer showed us many years ago.

USB Flash Drive Reveals Strange SD Card Heart

Many a hacker has dug an old flash drive out of the bottom of a backpack, and peeled apart the damaged plastic case to look inside. More often then not, you’d expect to see some SMD chips on a PCB along with a few passives, an LED and a USB port. [Gough] found something else entirely, and documented it for the interested public.

Inside the Comsol 8GB USB stick, [Gough] found an entire microSD card. One might be led to think this is a card reader and microSD masquerading as a normal flash drive, but the reality is far different. Instead, the drive contains a Flash memory controller which addresses the microSD card as raw NAND, through test points normally covered up on consumer-grade cards. The drive appears to be manufactured from factory second microSD cards that don’t pass the normal tests to be onsold to the public.

Armed with software obtained through spurious channels, [Gough] is able to dive deeper into the guts of the flash drive. The engineering tools allow the card to be optimised for capacity or speed, and different levels of error correction. It’s even possible to have the flash drive emulate a U3 CD ROM drive for OS installs and other purposes.

It’s a great dive into how USB drives work on a low level, and how the firmware and hardware work together. We’ve seen other flash drive hacks before too – like this simple recovery trick!

Relay Computer Starts With An Adder That Makes A Racket

Computers built using discrete logic chips? Seen it. Computers from individual transistors? Impressive, but it’s been done. A computer built out of electromechanical relays? Bring on the ozone!

The aptly named [Clickity Clack]’s new YouTube channel promises to be very interesting if he can actually pull off a working computer using nothing but relays. But even if he doesn’t get beyond the three videos in the playlist already, the channel is definitely worth checking out. We’ve never seen a simpler, clearer explanation of binary logic, and [Clickity Clack]’s relay version of the basic logic gates is a great introduction to the concepts.

Using custom PCBs hosting banks of DPDT relays, he progresses from the basic AND and XOR gates to half adders and full adders, explaining how carry in and carry out works. Everything is modular, so four of his 4-bit adder cards eventually get together to form a 16-bit adder, which we assume will be used to build out a very noisy yet entertaining ALU. We’re looking forward to that and relay implementations of the flip-flops and other elements he’ll need for a full computer.

And pay no mind to our earlier dismissal of non-traditional computer projects. It’s worth checking out this discrete 7400 logic computer and this all-transistor build. They’re impressive too in their own way, if a bit quieter than [Clickety Clack]’s project.

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Dead-Bug Logic Probe In A Magic Marker

Logic probes are simple but handy tools that can be had for a couple of bucks. They may not be the sexiest pieces of test gear, nor the most versatile, but they have their place, and building your own logic probe is a great way to understand the tool’s strength and weaknesses.

[Jxnblk]’s take on the logic probe is based on a circuit by [Tony van Roon]. The design hearkens back to a simpler time and is based on components that would have been easy to pick up at any Radio Shack once upon a time. The logic section is centered on the venerable 7400 quad 2-input NAND gate in the classic 14-pin DIP format. The gates light separate LEDs for high and low logic levels, and a 555 timer chip in a one-shot configuration acts as a pulse stretcher to catch transients. The DIP packages lend themselves to quick and dirty “dead bug” construction, and the whole thing fits nicely into a discarded marking pen.


It’s a simple build and a nice form factor for a useful tool, but for an even slimmer package like an old syringe you’ll probably have to go with SMD components. And when you graduate from the simple logic probe, you might want to check out the capabilities of this smart probe.

Hackaday Prize Entry: You Can Do Anything With A Bunch Of NANDs

Every few years, someone on the Internet builds a truly homebrew CPU. Not one built with a 6502, Z80, or a CPU from the 80s, either: one built completely out of 74-series logic chips or discrete transistor. We’re lucky enough to have [Alexander] document his build on, and even luckier to have him enter it into this year’s Hackaday Prize. It’s an 8-bit computer built completely out of NAND gates.

Computers are just logic, and with enough NAND gates, you can do anything. That’s exactly what [Alex] is doing with this computer. It’s built entirely out of 74F00 chips – a ‘fast’ version of the ubiquitous quad 2-input NAND chip. The architecture of this computer borrows from the best CPUs of the 70s and 80s. The ALU is only four bits, like the Z80, but also uses the 6502 technique where the borrow is an inverted carry. It’s a small instruction set, a 2-stage pipeline, and should be able to compute one million instructions per second.

Designing a CPU is one thing, and thanks to Logisim, this is already done. Constructing a CPU is another matter entirely. For this, [Alex] is going for a module and backplane approach, where the ALU is constructed of a few identical modules tied together into a gigantic motherboard. [Alex] isn’t stopping at a CPU, either: he has a 16-byte ROM that’s programmed by plugging diodes into holes.

It’s an amazingly ambitious project, and for entering this project into the 2016 Hackaday Prize, [Alex] already netted himself $1000 and a trip to the final round of competition.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: From Q To NAND

The apocalypse is coming, and the last time I checked, not many people have a semiconductor fab in their garage. We’ll need computers after the end of the world, and [matseng]’s project for the Hackaday Prize is just that – a framework to build computers out of discrete components.

The apocalyptic spin on this project is slightly exaggerated, but there is a lot someone can learn by building digital devices out of transistors, resistors, and diodes. The building blocks of [matseng]’s computer are as simple as they come: he’s using three resistors, four diodes, and one NPN transistor to build a single NAND gate. These NAND gates can then be assembled into any form of digital logic. You’re never going to get a better visual example of functional completeness.

A project like this must be approached from both the top down and bottom up. To go from a high level to ones and zeros, [matseng] built an assembler and an emulator. Some ideas of what the instruction set will be are laid out in this project log, and for now [matseng] is going for a Harvard architecture with eight registers. It’s a lot of work for a computer that will be limited by how much memory [matseng] can be wired up, but as far as ambition goes, there aren’t many projects in the Hackaday Prize that can match this tiny, huge computer.

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